This humble paper is an affirmative response to the lucid and scholarly essay of Ms. Natalie Shobana Ambrose’s “Empowering our thinkers”, The Sun Daily, July 12th.
Though I overwhelmingly concur to her general proposition, I beg the indulgence of the reader that I may be allowed to adumbrate and elaborate on the various theses that she laid down.
Indeed, “throughout history, the most dangerous people to any regime have not been the thugs, thieves or murderers but rather the thinkers and the intellectuals. For centuries governments have crafted laws limiting the opinions and vetoing findings of studies from being publicised or rubbishing theories that do not fit with their agenda. So much so modern academics find that they constantly self-censor or thread far away from what is deemed sensitive or controversial subjects as a form of self-preservation and survival.”
Said dangerous people, namely the thinkers, the intellectuals, the iconoclasts, the mavericks and independent observer has always been the irritating thorn to any regime, especially a state that is perceived to be unjust, unfair and perverted.
More often than not, said regime’s program to neutralize these individuals is to either eliminate them or silence them by sending them to the dungeon or by banishing them altogether from the territory of the said country.
Another vicious method being resorted into by these kinds of regimes is to enact laws that stifle, delimit, impede and denounce the unorthodox opinions of the said intellectuals.
Added to this is the Macheviallian act of the said regimes of harassing, questioning and denying the very position of these intellectuals whose radical views do not subscribe or follows the “official” program of the state.
These evil regimes also forced the thinkers and the independent observers to conform to the state-sanctioned policy.
Some, gave in due to pressure, hence instead of pursuing their research and project up to its conclusion; they engage in an internal conflicting act of censoring themselves, editing their work, doctoring their data, altering their findings and worst, some even decides not to proceed with their endeavor at all.
The reason is plain and simple: they have to engage in all these preposterous and ridiculous means for purposes of self-preservation and survival.
This is a shame!
As the writer contended:
“This missing voice is a great tell-tale of how authoritarian a government is and how much or little such talent is valued in the society. We see this throughout the world – talented academics who would rather bypass the red tape of taking on local issues as study topics instead embark on ground-breaking research in other lands so as to not rock the boat back home.
“Malaysia has not been spared in this respect. Not only have we lost bright stars to other lands by limiting the very essence of their work, we have also inevitably dumbed down our thinkers through fear, bureaucracy and threatening their livelihoods.
“Malaysia is going through fascinating transformation both socially and politically. In the last 10 years, the change has been profound. Yet so little study has been done amid all the political cacophony, and the Malaysian academic voice has been rather quiet. We have to ask the question why.”
By reason of fear and reprisal, persecution and state violence, some scholars, instead of embarking on ground-breaking enterprise and earth-shaking endeavor would rather avoid the great possibility of offending the powers that be and instead leave their country of origin and hesitantly exile themselves to other lands that is more tolerant and appreciative of their talents, potentialities and bright ideas.
This is a tremendous lose to the native land of the said researcher and a big goldmine to the adopted country.
This is a clear case of brain drain to the country of origin and as already noted; a gold mine to the new country or sanctuary.
The one that will benefit from the product of the intellectual labor and academic insights of the said scholar will not be his/her own native country but the nation that is presently adopting the said researcher.
This is not a new phenomenon, when Socrates was condemned to death unjustly by the stupid mob, his student Plato cannot bear the thought to stay in the city that killed his teacher so he decided to leave Greece for a while.
The same is true of Aristotle, when his student Alexander the Great dies, he also decided to leave Athens, saying thus that his act of leaving is his way of “saving the Athenians from sinning twice against Philosophy.”
The writer’s question is totally in point: why is it that despite the fact that Malaysia is going through a fascinating transformation both socially and politically in the last 10 years wherein the changes has been so rapid and utterly profound; ironically so little study has been done amid all the political cacophony and why the Malaysian academic voice has been rather quiet?
This is irony of all ironies, indeed!
It is beyond dispute that it is the author herself that squarely answered her own query.
Undeniably, the local bright stars are leaving the country due to the lack of equal opportunity, unfair policy, unjust government selection program, social injustice and the stupid conception of the state of affirmative action.
Added to these list of grievances and complaints is the irrefutable fact that “we have also inevitably dumbed down our thinkers through fear, bureaucracy and threatening their livelihoods.”
This is a shame!
Again, we return to the perennial social evils of the problem, namely: the act of the state in belittling, mocking, irritating, questioning, and harassing the thinkers through fear, bureaucratic brouhaha and economic blackmail.
Not added to this is the state’s act of political persecution such as dismissing the academic from the university or college, suing the said lecturer, teachers or professor and engaging in a character assassination of the said intellectual by using the vast powers of the government to disrepute the integrity of the thinker and put into doubt the product of his/her labor and scholarly work, when the only fault of the said academic is that his or her work is critical of the government or run counter to “the official line” being promoted by the state.
For those who decided to stay and confront bravely the perverted system of corruption, they must also face the full wrath of whole state machinery.
This is precisely the reasons why the thinkers and intellectuals had not taken advantage of this hotbed of potential study topics and areas of possible research.
Imagine an academic that will write a thesis which title is: How could the BN form the government when they are only voted 49% of the population?
Will the government accept that kind of research?
And what do you think will happen to those intellectuals who had undertaken the said studies? How are they going to be treated?
The answer is: either they are dismissed from their posts, or their contract will not be renewed or perhaps they will see themselves at the dock appearing before a court answering some silly and flimsy charges or their books will be ordered to be banned or they may die accidentally or they may disappear mysteriously or they may struggle economically to find some sponsor or funding that will going to support their work.
I concur with the writer that the problem I feel lies in space. The exact term being use in political science is the so-called “democratic space”.
Again, the bold questions posited by the writer are highly in point:
Is there a space where people are empowered to provide evidence-based critique?
Yes, there is a certain degree of “space”, but here’s the caveat: be ready and be willing to face the repercussions and consequences of your intellectual actions.
A true thinker and a genuine intellectual that proceeded to present an unorthodox work to the public must be ready and utterly prepare to hear the following idiotic and preposterous charges:
- “if you don’t like it here, leave!”
- “go back to where you came from”
- “what more do you want, ingrate?”
All of these are the price that an intellectual and a scholar have to pay and confront bravely in order to his or her quest of pursuing the truth and consequently spreading his or her ideas and thoughts to the public and the world!
“It seems far easier for a foreigner to write a book, article, thesis on Malaysian issues than it would be for a local. If we don’t agree with their findings – we can rubbish it as not correctly understanding Malaysia since they are an outsider. Of course the other argument is that Malaysians are too emotionally embroiled to carry out such studies. Perhaps there is some truth to it but that is not a good enough reason to leave a gaping hole in research work by local thinkers.”
On the Question of Empowering the Intelligentsia?
The great Russian novelist, Maxim Gorky said that the existence of the intellectuals is necessary in any form of society.
In my view, an intellectual has no nationality, because genius is universal. Nonetheless, I concur with the author that a community must produce its own thinkers and intellectuals before the world claim him or her.
Therefore, the Malaysian academic must rise above their “emotional embroidery” and carry out their studies — against all odds and regardless of the adverse consequences — whatever they may be.
To quote the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”
The Role of the Intellectuals
Professor Noam Chomsky said that “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.”
To quote from my article:
What is an intellectual?
According to Wikipedia, an intellectual is: a person who uses thought and reason, intelligence and critical or analytical reasoning, in either a professional or a personal capacity and is:
1. a person involved in, and with, abstract, erudite ideas and theories;
2. a person whose profession (e.g. philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, law, political analysis, theoretical science, etc.) solely involves the production and dissemination of ideas, and
3. a person of notable cultural and artistic expertise whose knowledge grants him or her intellectual authority in public discourse.
Based these definition, an intellectual is a person or an individual who is involved or is engaged in creating erudite ideas (whether abstract or not) and making some theories.
The primordial duty of the intellectual is to disseminate ideas. He or she is of notable culture and held some artistic expertise which standing gives him/her a sense of intellectual authority in public discourse.
Who are the intellectuals?
There is no iota of doubt that the intellectuals are the philosophers, the teachers, the writers, the poets, the artists and the like!
The French existentialist philosopher and Marxist revolutionary, Jean Paul Sartre pronounced that the intellectuals are the moral conscience of their age. He passionately believed as he himself lived his life the way he wrote and taught that: the task of the intellectuals is not limited by merely observing the political and social situation of the moment, but undeniably to be involved and engaged actively in all of society’s issues and concerns. Finally, he also maintained that part and parcel of the duty of an intellectual is to serve as a voice of the marginalized, the oppressed, the idiots, the exploited, the lowest members of the society and indeed to speak out—freely—in accordance with their consciences.
Professor Noam Chomsky, like Sartre also subscribes to the belief that a true intellectual must not be silenced nor cowed. They must always stand for the truth and condemn all the injustices and inequalities in the world.
Hence, on this ground, an intellectual is not only a member of his/her community, but a citizen of the world. This is in conformity with Professor Foucault’s concept of the universal intellectual!
Are they necessary for one society?
Yes, indeed! The intellectuals are truly necessary and indeed important in one society or political community. Their ultimate function is to serve as the critic of their society’s malaise. It is not an exaggeration to state that the intellectuals are precisely the eyes and soul of the community. (“The Significance of Social Sciences in Education, the University and the making of the Intellectuals”, Etniko Bandido Infoshop, May 5, 2012; “Creating students of substance and character”, February 3, 2013, The Star)
I completely concur with the author that “for a Malaysian though, embarking on potential research topics within the range of race relations, governance, electoral process, human rights, security, migration history and the likes is best left untouched. The retribution is not worth the contribution to the academic discourse – and this happens in a country where we enjoy “democratic comforts”.
The writer then listed her suggestions and what she perceived is the antidote the pressing problem that she saw in the Malaysian society and its academe.
“Malaysian intelligentsia needs to be empowered – both from the inside and out. How though?
“First, our universities, research institutes and think-tanks should be given the mandate to be neutral – not just on paper but also in accepting and engaging in research and study findings that are pertinent to today’s Malaysia, even if it makes the politicians uncomfortable. Of course this should be done within the confines of the analysis being transparent and evidence-based.”
Indeed, universities, research institutes and various think-tank academic groups must be given mandate, not simply for purposes of neutrality, but most importantly for objectivity.
Our duty is to let the university as free as possible to discharge its social function of creating intellectuals who are critical thinkers that will lead to their being civic-minded and responsible citizens.
The quest to unravel the varied and complicated truths of the social dynamics of one’s society demands that said institution are not shackled by bureaucratic intervention and governmental reprisal.
The universities must be given their independence and autonomy to conduct their own independent research and academic undertaking without thinking of whether the result of their project will please the powers that be or not.
Definitely, the said venture must be done “within the confines of the analysis being transparent and evidence-based”. Besides being transparent and evidence-based, said endeavor must also be daring and courageous to make public the product of the said work — whatever its findings are.
“Information should be readily available and funding provided with no swaying strings of political positioning attached. This of course is the ideal, perhaps then we should first, start with undoing the politicisation of administrative posts if genuine change is to happen. Also there needs to be a paradigm shift that thinkers are not traitors but rather people who can contribute knowledge to informed decision making. It is also important for thinkers to be actively engaged with decision makers without bias, reducing the gap between the different levels of society.”
Let me highlight the various problems listed by the author, namely:
- the inaccessibility of the information;
- said information is inaccessible because of lack or deficient funding;
- lack or deficient funding due to political machinations and attachment of political positioning;
- the politicization of administrative posts;
- the tendency for the thinkers to be tagged or called or be accused of being traitors; and,
- the necessity for the thinkers to be actively engaged with decision makers without bias.
In fairness to Malaysia, these problems or dilemmas or imbroglios and conflicts are not exclusive to them! Universally, intellectuals have face and confronted all or some of these issues, yet they are not a reason and they are not an excuse for the intellectuals to abandon their duty and betray the people’s trust!
The author is correct for demanding a paradigm shift to the powers that be for them to change their view of thinkers.
However, despite the existence of all these problems and challenges that a thinker and/or an intellectual must confront, he or she must resigned to the fact and be prepared that he or she may be tagged or called or be accused of being a traitor, radical, a danger, a menace, etc.
That is the price one has to pay for being an intellectual.
“Second, the public should demand for such high standards in academics and thinkers, only then will our intellectual movement be reliable and powerful enough to support reforms in a peaceful manner. Such public support is important for an intellectual revolution to take place.”
I agree that the public should demand for a high standard in academics and thinkers, yet the process should not end there. The intellectuals, the academics and the thinkers themselves must also demand recognition, support and solidarity from the public.
The duty of the intellectual is to study his or her society and everything about it, then craft it into a public discourse for the public’s consumption for their eventual acquisition of higher knowledge, which the thinker hope will lead to the development of the political consciousness and maturity of the people as a whole and all these in the end, if we combine will make the people and the general public responsible citizens, not only of their community, but of the whole world.
The obligation of the public is to listen to the intellectuals and the thinkers with regard to the latter’s view of their society. Besides listening, the people must also act upon the suggestions, studies and programs laid down by the intellectuals.
The intellectuals are researching and studying for their society and the people must study and act accordingly on the said social research to further enhance the validity, accuracy and veracity of these social realities.
The creation of a just society is not only the function of the thinkers; the people themselves must also contribute to attain the said goal.
The intellectual and the masses must forge a dialectical and symbiotic relationship! Undeniably the former serves as the social vital element, while the latter acts as the instrument of the social nucleus!
Why? The intellectual or thinker is nothing without the people and the people will not develop maturity and consciousness that would utterly be necessary in order for them to cultivate their civic-mindedness, sense of community and responsible citizenship (both locally and globally) and corollary to this, the people themselves will be powerless without the helping hand and enlightened guidance of their thinkers, academics and intellectuals!
In theoretical terms, the intellectuals and the masses are theory and practice. They must unite to form a single collective whole! It is only on this way that an intellectual revolution shall ensue!
“Third, the intelligentsia themselves need to restore the confidence that the academic world is untouched by political rhetoric and not governed by fear. Start by reinstating critical discourse and continue by measuring your worth not in local currency but of international standards. Allow students to be involved in substantive debate and empower the younger generation with academic freedom – start within the confines of your own classroom.”
One way to restore the confidence of the intelligentsia to the academe is for the government to allow more universities to be independent and autonomous.
The court’s ruling on the Universities Act is a welcome development, but still a lot more is needed to be done.
As I’ve stated then in my article:
I APPLAUD the ramifications of the decision by the Court of Appeal in upholding freedom of expression.
Section 15(5)(a) of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 restricts students from “expressing support or opposing any political party”.
The court said this provision was in direct contravention of the Federal Constitution, by virtue of the fact that it violates the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.
Justice Hishamuddin Yunus said he “failed to see how a student who expressed support for or against a political party could bring about an adverse effect on public order or morality”.
I think he said it well.
If we were to limit the sociopolitical exposure of our young to prevailing conditions and social milieu, we would be doing them a disservice.
Instead of creating critical-minded and civic-oriented citizens, who are responsible, bold, dynamic and proactive, we are moulding apathetic, lazy and passive people, who by virtue of their inadequacy and being puerile, cannot contribute to society.
Universities should be the breeding grounds for reformers and thinkers, and not an institution to produce students trained as robots.
A true democratic society is not afraid to allow its citizens to enjoy and exercise their rights to the maximum, so long as the citizens themselves use those said rights intelligently and responsibly.
Universities gear students to become independent and critical-thinkers so that they can become responsible members of society and cosmopolitan citizens of the world. (“Universities and University Colleges Act: Breeding grounds for reformers”, The New Straits Times, November 9, 2011)
It is my firm and ardent view that a great way to reinstate critical discourse in the university is to offer compulsory the subject of Philosophy and other Humanities subjects to all our college and university students nation-wide.
My core suggestion to the Malaysian educators and policy makers is for them to support and encourage the Liberal Arts programme.
Why? What is the importance of this subject/programme for the advancement of critical public discourse?
As I said then in one article:
THERE is no doubt that the subjects of Liberal Arts education, such as Philosophy, Ethics, Logic, Sociology, Anthropology, etc, – the Humanities as a whole – is the branch of knowledge that specifically deals with the study of what makes us human.
Hence, the value and importance of a Liberal Arts education.
In the words of Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University: “Liberal learning introduces them to books and music, the science and philosophy that form disciplined yet creative habits of mind that are not reducible to the material circumstances of one’s life (though they may depend on those circumstances)… The habits of mind developed in a liberal arts context often result in combinations of focus and flexibility that make for intelligent, and sometimes courageous risk-taking for critical assessment for those risks.” A Liberal Arts’ education is the source of critical thinking. Critical thinking is the capacity to think independently beyond the ordinary conception of prevailing reality.
Its mind is reason; while its heart is humanism. The precise utilisation of critical thinking will undeniably lead our students to the joys of critical analysis which in turn will certainly give them the philosophical tools necessary and pertinent for the conscious and bold exercise of complex insights.
In the words of Chris Hedges, “The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralised authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience.
There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think.”
It is in this exact sense that I overwhelmingly subscribe to the contention advanced by Professor Azhari-Karim of Universiti Sains Malaysia Penang (“Arts on the losing end” – NST, May 9).
He said, “One way is to teach Philosophy once again. This subject has been long absent from the curriculum for undergraduates. The idea is to refocus attention on the Arts and Sciences as being in the very rubric of knowledge and re-emphasise the philosophy of knowledge as a starting point for all academic pursuits.” This is in conformity with the argument of Ganesan Odayappen (“Education is beyond race and politics” – NST, May 2,) of Kuala Lumpur who said in his letter: “When we talk about educating a nation, we must understand clearly what it means, how it is going to be achieved and its objectives.
A nation which is striving to be a developed one needs tremendous human intellect and knowledge.” A Liberal Arts education is absolutely necessary for the continuous progression and development of a country. There is no shadow of doubt that this type of education, which centres on humanism and universal reason, is truly beyond race, politics, religion, sex, gender, cultural background and other discriminatory categories.
Humanism is the study of being a good man in the truest sense of the word; while the central aim of a Liberal Arts education is to further cultivate and harness the humanity of Man’s humanism. (“Nurturing Critical Thinking”, The New Straits Times, May 11, 2011)
“Most importantly, do not hide behind the protection of the Chatham House Rule (When a meeting, or par thereof, is held under the rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.) – use it sparingly so that your work is exposed for the betterment of the country.”
I would like just to add that a true academic and intellectual is a brave soul. He or she must not be afraid to pursue the ultimate conclusion of his or her studies and projects and he or she must be prepared to be mock, ridicule, antagonize and even ostracize.
The same thing happened to Einstein, Galileo, Tesla, etc. they were isolated, persecuted, hounded, mocked, etc., but where are they now? Hence, just be brave and carry on with your studies.
The intellectual is like the individual which Friedrich Nietzsche said “has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
“It’s a long road ahead yet one that is vital and necessary in our democratic process. Malaysia in this instance pales in comparison with the vocal scholarly voices in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. It’s time we studied ourselves, our communities, our societies, our politics, our beliefs, our history and our democracy without fear – who better than someone with local knowledge, who better than a Malaysian?”
Yes, it may be a long road ahead for the Malaysian academia, yet to paraphrase a Chinese saying: the first great step on a long journey begun with the first step itself.
The March of Reason must continue at all cost…
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